It takes just a few minutes to realize what a sterling success story former WBA and IBF super featherweight champion Brian Mitchell of Johannesburg, South Africa really is.
While campaigning from 1981-95, he compiled a sensational record of 45-1-3 (21 KOs). A masterful ring technician, his only loss was by decision to Jacob Morake early in his career. He went on to beat Morake three more times in South African title bouts.
In their last encounter, in November 1985, Morake died from injuries sustained in that bout. The 45-year-old Mitchell’s eyes still well up when he remembers that fateful affair.
“It was very tough on me,” said Mitchell, who accompanied bantamweight contender Silence Mabuza to New York for his April 20 bout IBF bantamweight elimination bout against Ricardo Vargas.
“I was a 24-year-old baby and already thinking about retiring. I didn’t want to box anymore. That was a real low point of my life. It throws you around a bit. It’s still tough to talk about.”
After several months Mitchell was convinced to return to the ring. One of his biggest supporters was Morake’s mother. “She prayed for me and told me it was part of the game,” he recalled. “That meant the world to me.”
Less than a year later, Mitchell stopped Alfredo Layne of Panama in ten rounds to win the WBA title in front of thousands of fans at the Superbowl in Sun City.
“He had just beaten Wilfredo Gomez and was at the top of his game,” said Mitchell. “That was a great night, but the cherry on the cake was beating [Tony] Lopez in Sacramento.”
Mitchell made 11 successful defenses of his title before facing Lopez, who was the IBF champion, in Sacramento in March 1991. They fought to a draw. Six months later Mitchell returned to Sacramento and beat Lopez handily to partly unify the titles.
Every year Mitchell’s name is on the ballot for the Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, and every year he is not selected. Even a cursory look at his record offers ample proof that he deserves to be there.
When you consider the fact that he was a white man fighting out of South Africa in the dark days of apartheid, his accomplishments are even more remarkable. Many fighters refused to fight there and when Mitchell fought on the road there were always demonstrators in his midst.
“I couldn’t take all that [political] stuff in back then,” said Mitchell. “I was a sportsman, and I couldn’t understand why there’d be pickets if I fought in the U.S. or other countries. I only thought about the sport. I was very strong-minded, but sometimes that got challenging.”
Mitchell eventually grew disenfranchised with boxing and fought only twice more over a three-and-a-half year period after beating Lopez.
He began managing fighters and promoting fights, and also became an importer of South African wine, the proprietor of an auto dealership, and a sought-after motivational speaker.
Besides boxing Mitchell had a wealth of experience to draw on when discussing his motivational muses.
He grew up an only child in Malverne, one of Johannesburg’s poorest neighborhoods. His father, a former professional boxer with the same name as his, left home early so Mitchell was raised by his mother.
“I grew up tough,” he said. “My father wasn’t there. I started boxing at nine years old and it became my life for 36 years. I’m now 45 and have spent 36 years in boxing.”
Eloquent and erudite, one can’t help but wonder how he came out of such a rough game so physically and mentally intact.
“I look after myself, I always did,” he said. “I always saw boxing as the art of self defense. I liked to hit and not get hit. The great fighters of my era, Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, they both speak well.”
Mitchell, along with promoters Rodney Berman and Cedric Kushner, still has some business interests in boxing, but admittedly has lost some enthusiasm for the game that was once his passion.
His greatest passions now are golf and his family, which includes a four-year-old named Damon whom he had with his second wife, Juanita.
He also has four children from his first wife, all of whom live in California. His oldest son, who is 19, is studying acting in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t encourage my children to box,” he said. “It is too tough of a sport. Boxing was great to me. Growing up poor, everything I have in life came through boxing. But I’d still prefer they all do something else.”
Mitchell is laid back and seems totally at peace with himself. He now lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he is pursuing several business opportunities.
Still the most celebrated boxer to ever hail from South Africa, Mitchell has a fondness for his native country but is glad to now be living in the United States.
“South Africa is my home, it always will be,” he said. “Because of apartheid I was forced to fight a lot out of the country. That was probably a good thing for me because I got to see the world.
“I still love South Africa, but the U.S. is my home now,” he continued. “I’m looking forward to making my mark.”